HEAT WAVE: Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Jordan. Filming in the landscape was “really surreal,” says Chalamet. PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
Feuding royals. A deadly planet. Before Star Wars or Game of Thrones, there was Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi novel. Part two of V.F.’s report on Denis Villeneuve’s new movie.
Timothée Chalamet remembers the darkness.
It was the summer of 2019, and the cast and crew of Dune
had ventured deep into the sandstone and granite canyons of southern Jordan, leaving in the middle of the night so they could catch the dawn on camera. The light spilling over the chasms gave the landscape an otherworldly feel. It was what they had come for.
“It was really surreal,” says Chalamet. “There are these Goliath landscapes, which you may imagine existing on planets in our universe, but not on Earth.”
Zendaya as Chani PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
They weren’t on Earth anymore, anyway. They were on a deadly, dust-dry battleground planet called Arrakis. In Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 sci-fi novel, Arrakis is the only known location of the galaxy’s most vital resource, the mind-altering, time-and-space-warping “spice.” In the new film adaptation, directed by Arrival
and Blade Runner 2049
filmmaker Denis Villeneuve
, Chalamet stars as the young royal Paul Atreides, the proverbial stranger in a very strange land, who’s fighting to protect this hostile new home even as it threatens to destroy him. Humans are the aliens on Arrakis. The dominant species on that world are immense, voracious sandworms that burrow through the barren drifts like subterranean dragons.
For the infinite seas of sand that give the story its title, the production moved to remote regions outside Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the temperatures rivaled the fiction in Herbert’s story. “I remember going out of my room at 2 a.m., and it being probably 100 degrees,” says Chalamet. During the shoot, he and the other actors were costumed in what the world of Dune
calls “stillsuits” — thick, rubbery armor that preserves the body’s moisture, even gathering tiny bits from the breath exhaled through the nose. In the story, the suits are life-giving. In real life, they were agony. “The shooting temperature was sometimes 120 degrees,” says Chalamet. “They put a cap on it out there, if it gets too hot. I forget what the exact number is, but you can’t keep working.” The circumstances fed the story they were there to tell: “In a really grounded way, it was helpful to be in the stillsuits and to be at that level of exhaustion.”
The House Atreides, Left to Right: Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Stephen Mckinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck and Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
It wouldn’t be Dune
if it were easy. Herbert’s novel became a sci-fi touchstone in the 1960s, heralded for its world-building and ecological subtext, as well as its intricate (some say impenetrable) plot focusing on two families struggling for supremacy over Arrakis. The book created ripples that many see in everything from Star Wars
to Game of Thrones
. Still, for decades, the novel itself has defied adaptation. In the ’70s, the wild man experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky
mounted a quest to film it, but Hollywood considered the project too risky. David Lynch
to the big screen in a 1984 feature, but it was derided as an incomprehensible mess and a blight on his filmography. In 2000, a Dune
miniseries on what’s now the SyFy channel became a hit for the cable network, but it is now only dimly remembered.
Villeneuve intends to create a Dune
that has so far only existed in the imagination of readers. The key, he says, was to break the sprawling narrative in half. When Dune
hits theaters on December 18, it will only be half the novel, with Warner Bros. agreeing to tell the story in two films, similar to the studio’s approach with Stephen King
and It Chapter Two
. “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie,” says Villeneuve. “The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.”
For Villeneuve, this 55-year-old story about a planet being mined to death was not merely a space adventure, but a prophecy. “No matter what you believe, Earth is changing, and we will have to adapt,” he says. “That’s why I think that Dune
, this book, was written in the 20th century. It was a distant portrait of the reality of the oil and the capitalism and the exploitation — the overexploitation — of Earth. Today, things are just worse. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a call for action for the youth.”
Director Denis Villeneuve and Javier Bardem on the set PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES.
Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
In an intriguing change to the source material, Villeneuve has also updated Dr. Liet Kynes, the leading ecologist on Arrakis and an independent power broker amid the various warring factions. Although always depicted as a white man, the character is now played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster
), a black woman. “What Denis had stated to me was there was a lack of female characters in his cast, and he had always been very feminist, pro-women, and wanted to write the role for a woman,” Duncan-Brewster says. “This human being manages to basically keep the peace amongst many people. Women are very good at that, so why can’t Kynes be a woman? Why shouldn’t
Kynes be a woman?”
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet Kynes. PHOTO BY CHIABELLA JAMES
As fans will know, there’s a vast menagerie of other characters populating Dune
. There are humans called “mentats,” augmented with computerlike minds. Paul is mentored by two bravado warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, played by Jason Momoa
and Josh Brolin
. Dave Bautista
plays a sinister Harkonnen enforcer Glossu Rabban, and Charlotte Rampling
has a key role as the Bene Gesserit reverend mother. The list goes on. In the seemingly unlivable wilds of Arrakis, Javier Bardem
leads the Fremen tribe as Stilgar, and Zendaya
costars as a mystery woman named Chani, who haunts Paul in his dreams as a vision with glowing blue eyes.
The breadth of Dune
is what has made it so confounding for others to adapt. “It’s a book that tackles politics, religion, ecology, spirituality — and with a lot of characters,” says Villeneuve. “I think that’s why it’s so difficult. Honestly, it’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.” After finishing this first movie, he’ll just have to do it all over again.